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ROSELLE, NJ — Last Friday, Kahlil Whitney's mother arranged for him to fly from New York to Chicago in order to attend his great-grandmother's funeral.
Annie Tillmon had served as a sort of second grandmother for Kahlil, who grew up in Chicago, and he needed to be with his family.
"I'm a family-oriented guy, so I try to be around my family as much as possible because times like that you don't get back," the 6-foot-7 Whitney said Wednesday at Roselle Catholic High School, where he was presented with his jersey for the McDonald's All-American Game on March 27 in Atlanta. "Spending time with your family, the great memories you have with them, so I kind of took it hard. I had to be there for my mom and my grandmother and grandfather. It was sad. She's in a better place right now, and she's looking down on me."
After visiting with his family and spending Saturday morning at the funeral home, Whitney flew back to New York that afternoon. He landed around 3 p.m., and then joined his teammates for the Union County Tournament championship game. The Lions beat their rival The Patrick School, 71-66, as Whitney scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, while adding seven rebounds and five assists in the win.
Now, as the Lions were set to begin defense of their New Jersey Tournament of Champions title on Wednesday night, Whitney is dedicating a potential state tournament run to his great-grandmother.
"That was my goal from the beginning of the year, a state championship and TOC, so I just got a little more motivation now," he said.
Having won back-to-back Union County crowns, Roselle Catholic (23-3) is seeking to become the first team since St. Anthony's in 2011-12 to win back-to-back New Jersey TOC titles. Roselle Catholic's three TOC crowns trail only St. Anthony's 12 and St. Patrick/Patrick's School's six.
The Lions are the No. 1 seed in the vaunted North Non-Public B bracket, and could meet The Patrick School in the semifinals and then potentially Rutgers-bound guard Paul Mulcahy and Gill St. Bernard's in the final on March 6.
Looming after that is a possible rematch with the Ranney School featuring Villanova-bound guard Bryan Antoine and Florida-bound wing Scottie Lewis—Whitney's fellow McDonald's All-Americans—in the Non-Public B state title game on March 9. Ranney handled Whitney and Roselle Catholic, 61-49, on Jan. 30 in a game attended by Kentucky coach John Calipari.
The winner of that game would advance to the TOC, presumably as the No. 1 overall seed in the six-team bracket featuring New Jersey's half dozen public and private state champions. The TOC final is set for Selection Sunday, March 17, at Rutgers.
In order for Roselle Catholic to repeat, Whitney will have to play at a very high level for a seven-game stretch.
"I've always stood by the fact that if you're going to win a state championship and a TOC, your best kids have to play great basketball in tournament time," RC coach Dave Boff said. "So my hope is that Kahlil and our other seniors and other starters rise to the occasion and play their best basketball over the next month."
RC also features high-flying UNLV-bound point guard Josh Pierre-Louis, who had 20 points in the Union County final, senior forward Colby Rogers (12 points) and junior big man Cliff Omoruyi (16). Pierre-Louis and Rogers were also honored Wednesday as McDonald's nominees.
Boff believes Whitney has another gear he can still reach for the state title run.
"I think he's got another level that he can go to defensively and on the glass," Boff said. "I think he can give us something special here over the state tournament run. That's what we're going to need."
Although Whitney won the TOC as a junior alongside current LSU freshman big man Naz Reid, he wants to win again as the leader of his own team. Also, this would mark his first state title as a Kentucky commit. (He pledged in August.)
Kentucky has had a unique connection to the New Jersey TOC in recent years, with Karl-Anthony Towns leading St. Joe's-Metuchen to the crown in 2014, Isaiah Briscoe guiding RC to a title in 2015 and Nick Richardson leading The Patrick School to the crown in 2017.
What does that say about Calipari's ability to recruit the Garden State's best?
"Coach Cal does a great job of recruiting New Jersey," Boff said. "He's been up here recruiting guys since he was at Memphis, so I think it shows that he evaluates talent well and he wants guys from winning programs. That's a very important thing for him at Kentucky. If he's going to play guys when they're a freshman, he wants guys who know how to win before they even get there. And I think that's why he recruits from the top programs."
Added Whitney: "I guess Coach Cal loves winners. I think every college coach wants winners and wants to recruit them. If I'm willing, I'll die on the court. I just go out every game and play hard."
Whitney's goals are all there for the taking in the next few weeks and months—the state tournament, a potential TOC run and the McDonald's All-American Game.
He will then return to Chicago in early May to sign his Letter of Intent at his grammar school, where he hopes to serve as a role model for younger kids who have grown up around gun violence the way Whitney did.
He will keep his great-grandmother's memory in his mind through it all.
"My great-grandmother always stayed on top of me about doing the right thing and being a great person," he said.